Virtual Reality: Coming Soon to an Experience Near You – Part 1

Posted on 4th April 2017


Welcome to the Business Empathy Forum and thank you for your visit. In this post I would like to begin the first of two posts that touch on dramatic advances being made in virtual reality, and particularly on the creative ways these technologies are being used to build empathy, inclusiveness and understanding. A recent article from provides some fascinating examples of this growing trend.

Technology That Can Build Empathy

“VR at its best can do more than immerse: it lets people appreciate new perspectives. And it’s already being harnessed to get at the root of some of society’s toughest problems. Researchers at Stanford are running ‘virtual shoes’ experiments in which people ‘viscerally embody avatars’ that encounter various forms of prejudice, based on age, race, economic status, and disabilities. Then, subjects are tested for changes in empathy levels toward these groups. After positive initial results, the team is now partnering with neuroscientists to demonstrate how these experiences — which they quite clinically call ‘self-other merging’ — can physically change the brain to reduce bias.”

Social innovators are also leveraging virtual reality technology to build empathy and solicit financial support for disadvantaged groups like refugees and the poor, a particularly timely effort given the current international political climate. “After screening its documentary on a 12-year-old refugee in Jordan, ‘Clouds over Sidra’, in 360-degree video, UNICEF more than doubled its annual fundraising haul. Pencils of Promise, which builds schools for children without access to them, used the same technology to show what learning feels like before and after access to a decent learning environment. More recently, an immersive experience called Notes on Blindness stole the show at the Tribeca Film Festival, by putting the ‘audience’ in the mind’s eye of someone who is blind. 3D sound was the star here, showing that VR’s power transcends fancy visuals.”

A number of forward-looking private sector firms have also begun to leverage these technologies and virtual experiences to address critical workplace challenges such as inclusion and diversity, issues with important financial as well as social implications. “Discrimination is a bottom-line issue for today’s companies; sexual harassment alone drives millions of dollars in productivity losses a year, through absenteeism, morale loss, and legal action. Achieving sensitivity on issues of gender, race, or disabilities is easier when teams are placed into firsthand simulations in which they feel the perspective of the victim. And as organizations reach across national borders, cross-cultural training can go virtual, too.”

One gets the sense that we are just beginning to discover the potential of VR technology to strengthen empathy and understanding, and this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. In my second post on this topic I will explore some of the ways virtual reality and its cousins are being used to support innovation in business.

Good luck, and until next time…